Intolerant words starve Africans of the chance they deserve
Where Kevin Myers sees violent, layabout and lazy Africans, I see myself - except I got the chance of a better life through education, writes BRYAN MUKANDI
'BRYAN, YOU'RE a good black. The people who work on our farm are bad blacks." With that, Richard had summarised his view of the world. He was not apologetic or hesitant. No, as far as he was concerned, it was just a matter of fact, and he had nothing to be ashamed of.
Richard and I lived in the same dormitory at our high school. He was a white Zimbabwean, the son of wealthy farmers.
Outside school, the only black people he encountered were the poor labourers who worked for his family. He somehow found it possible to hold on to the worst racial stereotypes in relation to his parents' employees, but alter his views when it came to his schoolmates.
It has been a long time since he shocked me with his "good black, bad black" statement. The only other person who has been able to evoke the same reaction in me was Kevin Myers last week.
On July 10th, the Irish Independentcarried Myers' opinion piece, headlined "Africa is giving nothing to anyone - apart from Aids".
A friend phoned to let me know about the article. I thought it was a joke until I saw it with my own eyes. It was such a surreal experience I had to read it a couple of times. Because it takes me quite a while to interpret my emotions, I was numb for an hour or so. Then I became confused. It was only much later that I realised I was also angry and highly offended.
The confusion stemmed from the content of the article. To summarise, Myers' opinion, as I understand it, is that aid to Africa is a bad idea. It prevents Africans from dying. This is a bad thing because, should said Africans survive to adulthood, they will become murderous, AK47-wielding sex machines. The sex machines will spread all manner of disease, not least of which is Aids. Worse still, some of those who do survive to adulthood may make it to Europe.
Thus, to prevent these catastrophic consequences - eventual death only after having spawned more little menaces, or migration to Europe - it is better for all concerned if they die young . . . of starvation.
Even now, I am at a loss. I do not know which is more shocking. On the one hand, there is Richard's idea that, because I have the opportunity to go to a fancy school (as a result of a bursary), I am a tolerable kind of black person. And then there is Myers' thesis: Africans should not be tolerated. No, they should be allowed to starve to death because their only contribution is to virology (the study of viruses such as HIV/Aids).
I will say this for Ireland: it is an incredibly tolerant country. There was no real outrage as a result of the "let them starve" article (although I note that yesterday the Immigrant Council of Ireland has referred the article to the Garda because, it maintains, it amounts to incitement to hatred). But, otherwise, only a handful of people voiced their complaints.
It was mentioned on a few radio programmes but, for the most part, people seemed to take it in their stride. Some even called for dialogue on the merits of the article. Life moved on. And my anger turned into sadness. I was saddened by the fact that there were people who thought there was some merit in what seemed to me a horribly ugly work.
Essentially, Myers suffers from the same blindness that afflicted Richard. Richard looked at people, some of whom could easily have been my relatives, and saw something different to me. But the difference he saw did not really exist. What separated us was the fact that my parents got a few more opportunities than others and passed some of those on to me. But I could easily have been destined to the life of a peasant farmer or labourer, as were some of my close relatives.
There was never a "good black" or a "bad black". What he was looking at was the same person under different circumstances. And Richard's assumption that "bad blacks" are thieves, rapists, lazy and incapable of intelligent thought was a figment of an ugly collective imagination. The grown men he treated like children on the basis of their social rank were no worse than my father.
Myers' characterisation of Ethiopians, Somalis and Zimbabweans is just as ugly. Where he sees "violent, Kalashnikov-toting, khat-chewing, girl-circumcising, permanently tumescent layabouts", I see myself.
I had the privilege of growing up in a relatively peaceful environment. I grew up in a relatively stable home for the bulk of my childhood. I went to some of the best schools in the country. Had those things not happened, had I grown up in a war zone, I would be one of those "layabouts". Had even he been born into those circumstances, I imagine his views would be a little different.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion on aid and development. If Myers wants to have a serious discussion on that, I will happily oblige. But whether or not you intend to give your money to charities working in Africa, there is no reason for ugliness. There is no justification for writing about people who live in some of the most difficult conditions on this planet with such malice; none whatsoever.
Personally, I would like to see the so-called "layabouts" given a chance. I would like them to have the same access to education that I had and to enjoy as safe and secure a childhood as I enjoyed. And if enough is invested in people living in challenging places like Somalia or Sudan, in time that investment should pay off. At some stage, it will hopefully be those same people who rebuild their countries and find lasting solutions to some of their conflicts. Rather than throwing a tantrum, Myers could have helped by suggesting ways to bring about those changes.
"Let them die out" is no more a solution than "let them eat cake".
• Bryan Mukandi is an occasional Irish Timescolumnist and writes the blog, Outside In, available at www.irishtimes.com/blogs